Op-ed: Of riots, immigrants and the revenge of history

by Moses Ochonu

The French should have learned from Hurricane Katrina that the ghettoization of poverty and similar acts of concealment are not a long-term or effective solution to the problem of social and structurally-embedded inequities. The ghetto is, after all, only a natural disaster or a riot away from blowing up in everyone’s face and shattering the myth of accomplished integration, and the complacency and self-congratulatory escapism of dominant power structures.

But the French have always been poor students of history. The immigrant riots in France is nothing short of history’s revenge for years of pretending that the African immigrants in France do not exist or are undesirable reminders of French colonialism in Africa.

The French empire is striking back, and the children of empire, long hidden away in the dingy slums of Paris and Marseille under a peculiarly French variety of segregation pretentiously called multiculturalism, are revolting openly. The chickens of ignoring the inexorable human legacies of France’s imperial adventures in Africa are coming home to roost.

The French thought that they could wish away their colonial past by ignoring the visible human artifacts of that inglorious history, and by pretending to a doctrine of post-imperial inclusion and homogeneity without actually living up to its more practical, financially-demanding aspects. France has failed to learn from its own imperial history of advancing pretense, empty rhetoric and escapism as alternatives to actual problem-solving and social integration.

France has always been a sanctimonious imperial power, playing the imperial game by The refusing to match lofty rhetoric drawn from the French Revolution with actions that bear out that rhetoric. It inaugurated its imperial history in Africa by pretending to an administrative policy that ostensibly aimed at making African colonial subjects into Frenchmen. The Africans would only have to acquire the accoutrements of Frenchness, defined in strictly Euro-modernist terms. The policy was aptly called assimilation. As we now know, when assimilation was abandoned for a French version of indirect colonial rule called association after World War I, less than 50,000 African French colonial subjects had actually become French citizens.

The disparity between seemingly revolutionary proclamations and tokenistic window dressing was palpable. The French moved away from assimilation as quickly as they had embraced it because the potential social, economic, and political cost of sustained assimilation was high. It was an eloquent testament to French imperial ambivalence. But the French never learned. They would repeat the same mistake of raising the hope of universal French citizenship only to dash it once again.

In 1947 France extended citizenship to all of its African colonial subjects as a strategy to avoid having to meet the actual economic demands of a growing labor and nationalist movement. This escapist solution appeared lofty but it was counterproductive; it only increased the intensity and frequency of African agitations and labor demands as African laborers in the colonies began to covet the rewards of citizenship: the wages paid to French workers in France. Africans also began to migrate to France throughout the 1950s by invoking their imperial citizenship rights to emigration. Much of the African immigrant populations in France originate from this post-war, pre-independence migration.

Once again, the French retreat was swift. They moved quickly to grant independence to their African colonies, a move which was designed to invalidate the notion of imperial citizenship, which was helping, for good or ill, to populate the ports, docks, and cities of France with an unwelcome, potentially disruptive African presence.

The recent revolt of this discontented African community in France must therefore be understood partly as the inevitable but unintended consequence of the idealistic and half-hearted “solution” of 1947.

The absence of pragmatism and sincerity in French policy towards colonized peoples has characterized the French treatment of the African immigrant community in France. Plagued by unemployment, poverty, discrimination and ostracism, this community has lived in economic and political abeyance for much of its existence. The French have refused to confront the African presence realistically with a view to integrating it into the socio-political and economic fabric of French society. Instead, there has been a subtle effort to write the African community off French patrimony through a combination of willful ignorance and tokenistic, half-hearted, and illusory acts.

Tokenism, denial, the multiplication of slum shelters, and a policy of pretending that if a situation or problem is ignored it will cease to exist have all failed France. Nor has the selective assimilation of skillful French soccer players of African ancestry helped to articulate the message that the French desperately want to convey: that all is well between France and its African immigrant community. The recent uprising is the price of pretence and the illusion of French unity—a tragic reminder that the carefully nurtured myth of homogeneity is just that: a myth. For a long time, France convinced itself that by promoting the illusion of oneness, the economic and social concerns of the immigrant underclass did not need to be redressed as a separate problem. Nothing could be more wrong, or self-deluding. The French are paying the price for shunning the path of pragmatism and embracing pretentious idealism.

What happened in France was a tragic but inexorable consequence of a history of French refusal to truly integrate the African immigrant community, a living legacy of French imperialism in Africa, and to confront their plight. What happened was historical recompense of sort.

There are two possible solutions to the problem. The French should pursue real integration by investing in the educational and economic uplift of the African immigrants as a prelude to political integration. Or they should allow the immigrants to enjoy real social autonomy as an un-integrated community, and stop compelling them to assimilate into a largely mythical homogeneous French identity. The French need to make a choice.

Assistant Professor of History Moses Ochonu specializes in the economic, political and social history of modern Africa, especially Africans’ experiences of European colonialisms and their aftermath.


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